A Piece of the World – Christina Baker Kline. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.
American art critics fall into two camps regarding Andrew Wyeth: Those who dismiss his work, calling him a mere illustrator, and those who regard him as a virtuoso of modern realism. But both camps agree on one point: “Christina’s World” is his masterpiece.
Even a casual patron of art knows the image: a woman in a pink dress lying in a field, her back to the viewer, facing a bleak house on the horizon across a grassy plain. At first one’s eye is drawn to the painting’s perfect composition – the girl’s dark hair placed dead center on the canvas; the house a weathered gray that blends with the stormy horizon. On closer examination, one looks at the woman’s body – the awkward turn of her torso, her thin arms, the fingers of one hand splayed as if clawing the earth. The viewer then wonders: Who is this woman and what is she thinking as she stares off into the distance? Christina Kline’s book seeks to answer this question.
Based on exhaustive reading of biographies, autobiographies, obituaries, articles, histories and art criticisms, Kline creates a fictionalized story of Christina Olson’s world – a world that traces its roots to Salem, Massachusetts where a female descendent of John Hawthorne, the notorious chief magistrate of the Salem Witch Trials, marries a Norwegian sailor named Olson. The couple has three sons and one daughter – Christina. Fast forward decades and one of the sons, Al, and his sister Christina still live in the austere nine bedroom house on the bluff when a car arrives and out steps a young Andrew (Andy) Wyeth. He commandeers a room on the third floor of their house in Cushing, Maine and summer after summer travels from his home in Pennsylvania to paint, using eggs from the chickens in the yard to mix his tempera colors.
Soon, a friendship develops among Andy, his wife Betsy, Al and Christina, and as the siblings go about their daily chores managing a house and farm with no running water or electricity, Andy paints them – Al striding across a field, black crows on the barn roof, a pitcher of wild flowers, a rope hanging from a rafter, a dog curled on a white bedspread, and Christina – sitting in a doorway, straight back in a chair, crawling across the field.
This was her life from an early age. She suffered from ‘Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome’, a hereditary disorder that damages nerves in the arms and legs. Refusing to use a wheelchair, she crawled upstairs, outside to the chickens, down the road to neighbor’s homes and across the fields to the view from the bluff. Like the New England winters that the summer cottage people escaped, Christina is rock hard. Like the house, like the landscape, she perseveres year after year.
Kline’s story has no room for pity. One admires, even loves, this woman who accepts her condition while fighting not to be defined by it. “We all have our burdens to bear,” her mother told her at an early age. “You know what yours is now. That’s good. You’ll never by surprised by it.”
Where Wyeth’s paintings are stark and drained of color, Kline’s writing is lush. She paints with words of flowers, sunlight on ocean tides and blue skies with pink-tipped clouds, capturing the world as Christina sees it. But in the end, it’s all about the painting. “There she is, that girl, painted on a planet of grass. Her wants are simple: to tilt her face to the sun and feel its warmth. To clutch the earth beneath her fingers. To escape from and return to the house she was born in.”
View the painting. Read the book. Admire the tenacity of the human spirit.
My Wine Recommendation
“Live your life. Be who you are. Drink good wine along the way.” That’s the motto of Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville, Maine. As Christina and Al sit on a blanket outside their house at the end of a hard day on the farm, Cellardoor’s Queen Anne’ Lace wine would be the perfect complement to the evening. Made from a 50/50 blend on Seyval and Vidal grapes, it offers aromas of citrus blossom, green apple, and Key lime pie. When the bottle is empty, it makes a perfect container for a bouquet of wild flowers. $16.